Louise Sutherland – around the world before I was born

Louise Sutherland was a nurse from New Zealand who was working in London when she set off cycling around the world. She bought a bike in a church jumble sale in Soho for £2.10s and a ‘grateful patient’ in the hospital where she was nursing made her a small trailer ‘to trundle merrily behind it.’ She seems to have set off round the world almost on a whim – she had initially only intended to go to Land’s End! She returned to London to collect her passport and her £50 savings and set off. This was 1949 and she returned to London in 1956. Her adventures are described in her book ‘I Follow the Wind’ which was ‘written, printed and bound in its entirety by the author’.

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Her route took her from Calais to Bruges, Holland, Germany and Italy. ‘During my first day in Italy I felt most dubious about my chances of survival. I had been offered dire warnings about what happened to small girls travelling alone in that country. I did not wish to forego the camping , but equally, I did not relish the thought of being attacked in the dead of night……Of course no one did attack me.’ The warnings grew even more dire as she approached Yugoslavia ‘ “They shoot on sight…..” “They’re communists remember. If you’re arrested you might never be heard of again…” “They’re so poor they’ll attack you just to steal the valve rubbers out of your inner tubes…..” ‘ The people however treated her with great kindness.

From Yugoslavia she went to Greece and then took a ferry to Israel. She had an amazingly resilient spirit and refused to be daunted by the fact that having paid the boat fare she had only 13/6d left in the world. In Haifa she took a job in a Mission Hospital for 3 months, then cycled onto Jordan where she worked as a nanny. From there she cycled to Beirut and spent 6 months working in a sanitorium. She had hoped to cycle across the desert to Baghdad but was refused a visa so had to travel by train to catch a boat across the Persian Gulf to India. She was refused a third class ticket as ‘We do not sell third class tickets to white men and certainly never to a white girl. Anyway no girl is permitted to travel third class alone.’

She had, of course, received many warnings against going to India. In Bombay she was inundated with offers of hospitality but later found herself in a famine region where she went for 3 days without food. ‘I knew that only by keeping the pedals turning could I ever get to the dense green jungle that would indicate a rain soaked district, and only by reaching such a district would I again get food.’ Unfortunately all the warnings she had received almost came true when she was attacked by 2 men but they ran away when a bus appeared. ‘The memories of the attack by the few have now blunted and are fading, but the kindness of the many will always remain clear. After the fear had completely left my mind, I could feel nothing but anger for those two men. They had placed me in a position where all the world could say:”I told you so!” But does one swallow make a summer?’

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Whilst in Delhi she learnt that her father was dangerously ill and so she returned to New Zealand for a year. This was certainly not the end of her travels – she went onto Canada via Fiji and Hawaii. After working as a nurse’s aide for the winter she then spent 5 months cycling to New York. She arrived in New York with just $25 to her name – not enough for the boatfare back to England and as she had no work permit she was unable to earn money. She had however a final stroke of good fortune, a TV company had heard of her journey and invited her onto their programme ‘Strike it Rich’. She won $200 and so could afford the fare on the Queen Mary.

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I had assumed that this was a one off journey but I recently discovered a second book ‘The Impossible Ride’ published in 1982 which describes her journey along the recently built Trans Amazon Highway. Everyone assured her that this was completely impossible due to vast distances of uninhabited jungle, attack by Indians, attack by wild animals, poisonous snakes, lawless gangs….The list was endless although no one mentioned the deep and virtually impassable mud that did almost bring an end to her journey. I particularly liked her remark on the subject of loneliness. ‘Loneliness didn’t worry me. I was never lonely while I was cycling. I had my bicycle to talk to.’ This journey was even more remarkable than the last and the experiences from it inspired her to raise funds to equip a mobile clinic to help the people living along the ‘highway’.

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She had been persuaded to abandon her trusty trailer and ‘for the first time in thirty years of world cycling be using pannier bags instead’ She was also deeply distrustful of her derailleuar gear and felt that her usual 3 speed hub gear would have performed much better. She was unable to reinflate her tyres when she arrived in Brazil as she had never used presta valves before and never mastered the frame for attaching her handlebar bag. A knowledge of mechanics may be useful but it is certainly not essential as she clearly demonstrates! Determination and persistence however are. ‘Yes, I WAS frightened sometimes. There were too many people telling me I couldn’t do it. Too much talk about the impossibilities.I needed some pros to balance the cons. Some possible stories to balance the impossible ones- and now I had the best ‘possible’ one of all to tell! And, most of all, my faith in human nature had been completely justified.

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